World / Reporter's Journal

Chinese legend and lore mix with science for young minds

By Chris Davis (China Daily USA) Updated: 2016-08-24 10:48

Songju Ma Daemicke was born in Jilin, one of China's northeastern provinces, and came to the United States in 1996 to advance her education, eventually earning a master's in computer science. She married and moved to the northern Chicago suburb of Glenview, working as a software engineer for Motorola until her twin daughters were born.

One summer day in 2010 she and her family were walking through town when they noticed an amusing sign in the window of a Jimmy John's sandwich shop. It read: "Free Smells" and they all had a laugh.

But the sign reminded Songju of a story her grandfather used to tell her back in China when she was a child.

There once was a greedy old man who hired chefs to cook up delicious food, allowing the tantalizing aromas to waft throughout the neighborhood. He then tried to charge all of his neighbors for enjoying the delicious smells - going so far as to take them before a judge to collect what he thought they owed him.

The judge was wise and ordered the man to be repaid for the smell of his food with the jingling sound of the neighbors' coins. Sound for smell.

Chinese legend and lore mix with science for young minds

Growing up, Songju had enjoyed reading Chinese tales, but never had the opportunity to read many Western works until she came to college in America, where she fell in love with classics like Les Miserables and Jane Eyre.

Ever since her twins had been born and she became a stay-at-home mom, she had been reading aloud to the girls every day, discovering great children's books masters like Dr Seuss and others.

The "Free Smells" sign and memory of her grandfather's story piqued her curiosity. It had to have been an old Chinese folk tale, she decided, and went on a quest to find it, poring through books of Chinese and Asian lore in Chinese and translation at the library.

She could find it nowhere, nothing even similar, in any language.

"So I decided to write it myself," she said.

 Chinese legend and lore mix with science for young minds

Songju Ma Daemicke with her new book. provided to china daily

She was taking a writing class at the time, and one of the assignments was to write about something that comes from your homeland. So she took the basic concept - greedy man trying to charge neighbors for the delicious smells coming from his kitchen - and fleshed it out with contemporary props, settings and details. She read the draft to the class.

"I was surprised that everyone loved it," she said. "That was very encouraging."

Over the years, like all parents, Songju had always tried to answer the inevitable questions that come from young minds. How do fish sleep in the water? Why is the sky blue? How is it we can see people on TV? And she diligently did research to get responsible answers when she couldn't come with one on the spot.

"I often wished there was a book series that directly explained some of these general science concepts," she said. Her husband Dale, an attorney in Chicago, suggested that she write the series herself. She decided she would, and call it The Curious Mind. Her aroma-for-sound tale could be crafted into a lesson in two of our five senses - smell and hearing.

Researching the publishing industry, she came across a children's book series called For Creative Minds that did just what she intended to do and more. She sent them her story about the greedy old man and a second one, based on a 2,000-year-old Chinese story that is supposedly true.

In it, an emperor receives an exotic gift from a far off land - an elephant. The emperor insists on knowing exactly how much the monstrous beast weighs, but none of the scales in the realm are large enough to handle something so big.

A 7-year-old boy, Cao Chong, steps forward with a solution. Put the elephant on a barge on the water. Mark the waterline. Take the elephant out and put in stones until the mark is reached again. Then weigh the stones one by one.

Technically speaking, it's probably one of the first recorded uses of Archimedes' buoyancy principle from 250 BC.

But as Songju puts it, it's just another example of children's wonderful ability to think outside the box.

Arbordale Publishing took both of Songju's books for their Creative Minds series. A Case of Sense will have a formal launch on Saturday at the Glenview Public Library in Glenview, Illinois. Her second book, Cao Chong Weighs an Elephant, comes out in the fall of 2017.

Both should help young minds get out of that box.

Contact the writer at

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